In 2002, with an eye toward social, economic, and environmental change, Ojai resident Lyn Hebenstreit founded Global Resource Alliance to provide financial and technical support to community organizations in the world’s least developed regions. We caught up with him in cyberspace—between here and Tanzania, Africa, where he spends several months a year working on projects. So goes publishing these days.
LESLIE WESTBROOK: Jambo Rafiki! How are things in Tanzania? LYN HEBENSTREIT: Life is hard in Tanzania; it’s more challenging now than at any other time in the past 10 years. Global economic dislocations reach even the remotest villages in the form of deteriorating exchange rates and higher prices for imported goods, fuel, energy, and food. Life and death are close neighbors here.
LW: How did you come up with the idea to start your nonprofit? LH: Global Resource Alliance (GRA) was born of necessity—not mine, but that of community organizations here in Musoma, Tanzania. The groups that I first assisted as a volunteer in 2001 had capable staffs and impressive plans for community service but almost no money to put those plans into action. GRA was started to raise funds and offer technical services to help these groups succeed.
LW: What pulled your heartstrings? LH: The appalling conditions facing hundreds of orphans in the Musoma area was the first thing to grab my attention. Without assistance, many of these kids were headed for a future of poverty, fear, hopelessness, and crime or prostitution, their hidden potentials never revealed. Hundreds of these kids have benefitted from GRA programs over the past 10 years. Some are now on their way to becoming college graduates, in fact. But the scope of the problem is so vast, we’re hardly able to make a dent.
LW: I understand your project has three main components: water resource development, permaculture, and support for orphans. Can you tell us a little about each of these? LH: Lack of access to clean water is by far the biggest challenge for most rural communities in East Africa. It’s only after working here several years and hearing countless stories of the suffering caused by bad water, or no water, that we summoned the courage to undertake a water project. We had no idea how difficult, nor how expensive, such a project can be. Fortunately, the finances and volunteer expertise came together and we’ve been able to complete over 50 successful hard-rock boreholes (safe, long-lasting wells drilled deep into bedrock) serving many thousands of people. Challenges remain, of course. We constantly battle to keep our equipment working properly, and spend much time and effort training communities how to manage and maintain their boreholes so that the life-saving water will continue to flow.
Our second major program area is permaculture. My favorite definition of permaculture is “a diverse, complex ecosystem where the elements interact in mutually beneficial ways to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s a system of organic agriculture and human settlement that mimics the ways of nature to maximize output, including environmental enhancement, and minimize inputs. The project has slowly developed into three demonstration plots that serve as training centers for local and international student/farmers and provide fresh, organic food for GRA-Tanzania staff and about 70 families caring for orphans in a local village.
As I said before, care for orphans is where our work began. We now operate two projects through GRA-Tanzania. One, in Musoma town, has about 75 kids enrolled who live with foster families in the community and meet weekly at our office compound to play, sing, dance, draw, receive extra food for themselves and their families, pick up school supplies, soap, etc. They also receive tutoring and counseling as appropriate, and periodic health services. We help support them through high school or vocational school, or through college for those who can qualify. Our other project, in rural Kinesi Village, is similar, but with more attention devoted to food security through permaculture.
LW: You spend several months at a time in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania. Tell me about living there while working on your project as opposed to passing through as a tourist. LH: I think I’ll always be part tourist. I’ve spent about one-third of the last 10 years living in the same hotel room here in Musoma. We don’t get many tourists in Musoma, but if we did, they’d probably end up at a hotel like mine. The biggest difference, I guess, is that I have the opportunity to get to know many of the local residents on close, personal terms. Many are like family.
LW: On your website, you reference a quote about “embarrassingly simple” solutions to complex global problems. Can you comment on that? LH: Yes, that’s one of my favorite quotes from Bill Mollison, the guy who co-founded permaculture back in the 1970s. It’s so true—and not just in poor, developing countries. An embarrassingly simple solution to environmental degradation, for example, is to simply stop destroying the environment: stop poisoning the soil with chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides, buy cars that consume less fuel, walk and bike more, compost, recycle, etc. For just about every problem humanity faces, simple, natural, life affirming solutions exist. And they’re usually more effective and more economical in the long run than conventional approaches.
LW: Your wife, Tara Maria Blasco, and daughter, Monica Marshall, are also involved. Can you share something about your family dynamics and how you divvy up the duties? LH: As president, I try to assure that Tara and Monica do most of the work. Quite honestly, GRA would never have experienced the success it has, nor be able to function as we are now, without their talents and constant efforts. My responsibilities include the water project, accounting, and finance, both in the U.S. and in Tanzania. Tara coordinates permaculture, herbal medicine, alternative cooking technologies, and the orphans projects. Monica has been to Tanzania two times, but works mostly from Ojai developing and maintaining our websites, writing newsletters, and organizing events and other projects that support our work.
LW: What sort of stumbling blocks have you encountered? LH: Without a doubt, the most difficult and unexpected experience we’ve had to deal with is betrayal of trust by two of our closest collaborators in Tanzania. GRA-Tanzania has 24 employees, and a little small-scale pilfering is expected—as I said, life is hard. But it’s very discouraging when you discover that thousands of badly needed dollars have disappeared into the pockets of one of your most trusted colleagues.
LW: You had an angel donor—a big stakes Vegas poker player, as I recall—who helped get your organization off the ground. Since that’s no longer the bulk of your support, how viable is it going to be for you to continue this project? LH: Our poker playing angel appeared miraculously about three years ago. His support was a great blessing while it lasted, but now that it’s gone we’re focusing more on a financially self-sustaining project model. This is where we’ve been headed for years, and now we have some real motivation. I think that social entrepreneurship is a better approach than “charity” in general, although both have their role. We’re simply moving even further now in the direction of the former.
LW: How can people get involved? What’s most needed? LH: Over the years, GRA has had many volunteers, both in the U.S. and in Tanzania. As an all-volunteer organization, expertise in any of our program areas is always most welcome. Help with public relations, filmmaking, writing, and other creative efforts are also very valuable. A young documentary filmmaker, for example, joined us a couple years ago in Tanzania and produced a short DVD called From the Mara Soil. It’s won several film festival awards and attracts favorable attention everywhere it’s shown. Of course, financial support is always needed; people can donate online.